Carbon sequestration is essential to Australia’s decarbonisation

If anyone thought addressing climate change was getting easier, the latest Synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change surely puts that notion to rest.

The report confirms that while the challenge to decarbonise is great, the urgency with which we must act is even greater. As we move deeper into the 2020s, the window for effective action is closing rapidly – this is truly the critical decade for tackling climate change.

The burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – has created an existential risk for all of humanity and the natural world that supports us. The climate is now changing ten times faster than at any time in the past 65 million years. Deep cuts in emissions must be made this decade, and new fossil fuel development is incompatible with the goal of a safer climate this century. 

The situation is so critical that we need to do more than dramatically reduce emissions from all sources as fast and far as possible. We also need to remove from the atmosphere a lot of what has already been emitted.

In IPCC pathways consistent with the Paris goals, around 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere each year by 2050 and about 14 Gt per year by 2100. That means tripling the current sequestration rate in the next 27 years and capturing 7 times as much per year by the end of the century. It is in this context, with the need for action on all fronts, that the Climate Change Authority has released an Insights Report into the potential for sequestering carbon in Australia.

The IPCC has reinforced the idea that negative emissions – removing more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted – are essential for the attainment of the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

Building on a CSIRO technical report, the Climate Change Authority finds that Australia is endowed with carbon sequestration potential supply but that our ability to realise this potential is not yet well understood. Policymakers and markets need this type of information about sequestration and government agencies have an important role in providing that information.

Sequestration, like any other resource, is finite. But we don’t yet have a good handle on just how finite it is. The CSIRO technical report investigated technical potential, which is the maximum sequestration biophysically or technically possible without taking account of economic feasibility or competition for resources. It also estimated economic potential, which takes considers economic feasibility, but it did not go so far as to estimate realisable potential.

Realisable potential will be determined in no small part by competition for land, water, energy, feedstocks, infrastructure, price, capital, and other underpinning enablers. These resources will come under pressure as electrification and alternative fuels grow. Demand for sequestration to counterbalance hard-to-abate emissions will add even more pressure on these resources.

Decarbonising our economy represents a massive transformation. While direct emissions reductions must be our first priority, governments should also pursue policies to ensure there is adequate supply of sequestration to meet demand. 

The CSIRO technical report investigated 12 sequestration technologies in detail, including biological technologies such as farm forestry and engineered technologies such as direct air capture, and found that no single technology appears able to deliver all of Australia's current and future sequestration capacity.

Increasing supply will therefore mean a portfolio of approaches that include protecting, increasing, and renewing biological sequestration; and scaling- up engineered and geological sequestration, both onshore and offshore.

With our large land mass, and expertise in science and engineering, Australia could have one of the largest sequestration industries in the world.

We have an opportunity to lead in technological advancement, but other nations are also addressing the sequestration issue at pace We need to act quickly on emissions reduction as well as sequestration to make sure we don’t miss the opportunity to become a sequestration leader.

To meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement we must accelerate our efforts to reduce emissions and sequestration cannot be used as a reason for delay. The IPCC makes clear that promotion of environmentally sustainable and cost-effective ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere needs to be part of the response.  Global discussions have already begun to shift focus from net zero to net negative targets to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goals. As a nation endowed with land, sun, wind and a geologically stable land mass, sequestration presents economic opportunities for Australia in a low-emissions world through the reshaping of existing industries and the creation of new enterprises. 

Authored by Grant King and Professor Lesley Hughes


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